We all know this classic movie scene: The star basketball player has his biggest game of the season coming up, and on the day of the event, you watch him making shot after shot after shot in the empty gymnasium, endlessly aiming for the hoop. He’s doing it for extra last-minute practice, and it helps that each time he makes a basket, he feels better about his skills.
Truth is: Shooting for hours is a great a stress reliever; in fact, any sort of mindless, repetitive task will have a calming effect on you when you’re feeling anxious. According to a study conducted at Tel Aviv University, “people often act in these ways because they help increase a person’s belief that they are managing a situation that is otherwise out of their hands.”
For me, I’m a stress baker. You can always tell when I’m struggling with writer’s block for an upcoming article because somehow, during all my panicking, I can make hundreds of cookies appear on the dining table. (You can bet my friends love when I’m stressed more than I do.)
It’s a little weird, but it works wonders, in the I’m not really doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now, but I’m still kind of doing something productive sort of way. The repetitive action of measuring, pouring, and stirring just puts me at ease when things feel like they’re out of my control. If I can’t get my assignment quite right by my deadline, I tell myself, at least I can get this apple pie right. And by the time the kitchen is filled with the smell of delicious baked goods, I’m mentally and emotionally prepared to pick back up where I started.
And the same goes for the athlete: Maybe he can’t control the outcome of his big game, but if practice doesn’t make perfect, at least it puts him at ease.
“Repetitive behavior and rituals can be very effective in increasing focus and reducing stress,” notes Dr. Jill Owen, a chartered psychologist with The British Psychological Society. “In the case of an athlete, focusing on a relatively unobtrusive, specific routine before a moment of pressure can concentrate the mind constructively and avoid anxious or de-motivating thoughts so that performance is enhanced.”
So, next time you’re feeling the pressure, whether that’s with your never-ending job search or a major project deadline, take a short break. It’s actually better for you and your mental health to switch your brain off for a bit and do something repetitive, whether it’s cracking open a coloring book, deleting spam from your inbox, or taking a couple laps around the block. Seriously, take this as permission to not do your work, not for right now at least.